You might be forgiven for missing what looked like the end of Donald Trump's infrastructure crusade. The faux populist's campaign promise to "build the roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports and the railways of tomorrow" gave way nearly two years later to an admission on Wednesday by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that "I don't know that there will be [an infrastructure bill] by the end of the year." Since after this year Republicans will have presumably lost seats in Congress and maybe even lost control of the House, she might as well have said, "RIP Infrastructure Week."
But how did it die?
As Jonathan Chait noted in New York, Trump's passion for infrastructure projects was a key component of the "economic nationalism" that set him apart from his fellow Republicans. When Steve Bannon was in Trump's favor, the strategist touted a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan; there was speculation that infrastructure would be a way for Trump to work with Democrats rather than Republicans and shake up the normal politics of DC.
This did not happen, not even a little. Bannon was unceremoniously kicked to the curb by his boss, who quickly embraced a traditional Republican domestic agenda of slashing taxes and gutting people's access to healthcare. Trump had promised to come out with an infrastructure plan during the first 100 days of his administration, but by December no such plan had materialized. Finally, in February, a plan did come out only to be pronounced dead on arrival. Rather than spending money directly on infrastructure projects, it mostly sought to shift costs onto state and local governments and hand out only $200 billion in grants, a fraction of what the American Society of Civil Engineers said was needed to repair America's damaged infrastructure. Democrats rejected that approach, and since Republicans in Congress have never given much of a shit about infrastructure to begin with, the proposal was largely ignored. (It didn't help that in a separate budget proposal, Trump had proposed what Democrats said amounted to cuts to infrastructure.)
Trump has actually at least tried to follow through on many of his campaign promises, and broke through in some key areas. He tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, passed an across-the-board tax cut that benefited corporations and the super rich like him, began to pull out of the deal Barack Obama made with Iran over its nuclear program, restricted citizens of some Middle Eastern countries from traveling to the US, made life harder for undocumented immigrants, and has recently started to impose tariffs on China. He's also preparing for a summit next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
But nearly all of these moves could have been made by any Republican president. Trump promised to be a different breed. At one point during the 2016 campaign, he criticized Hillary Clinton's own infrastructure plan as being too small-minded: “Her number is a fraction of what we’re talking about. We need much more money to rebuild our infrastructure." Over and over, as a candidate then as president, he made noises about a great national project of construction and economic rejuvenation.
The problem was that tackling infrastructure would have required a great deal of effort on his part. He would have had to attract Democratic support by following through on his promise to actually increase domestic spending, which would mean going up against anti-government conservatives. He would have doubtless been able to steamroll any such opposition thanks to his popularity among the GOP base, but Trump has no shown no willingness to fight that kind of fight. Instead, he's left many key areas of national policy entirely in the hands of congressional leaders like Paul Ryan. Maybe Trump really wants to rebuild America's infrastructure, but he doesn't seem to care enough to actually try to do it.
The punchline is that Trump voters don't appear to care all that much either. His approval ratings don't appear to have suffered because of his infrastructure inaction. No insurgent Republican politicians seem to be focused on the issue. The populist right-wing media doesn't talk about it—Breitbart covered Trump's February plan favorably, but hasn't pressured the administration on it since. No one ever showed real, sustained interest in holding Trump accountable on infrastructure, so it was easy for him to walk away.
America's infrastructure actually does need a lot of improvements. Maybe the next president will get to that.
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